Athletics: Engquist fights for chance to run again

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EIGHT YEARS ago, at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, Ludmila Engquist - or Ludmila Narozhilenko, as she was at the time - sat seemingly awestruck while Gail Devers told the world how she had battled from the brink of tragedy to the world championship medal podium.

"I remember you looked kind of shocked by it," an American journalist said to Engquist as she sat alongside Devers at the Estadio Olimpico here late on Saturday night.

"No, I wasn't shocked by it," Engquist said. "I just didn't understand English back then. I was thinking, `Not one question for me. I won the race and nobody is interested in me.' I was very, very upset. I just didn't know what Gail was saying."

What Devers had been saying was that 12 months previously she had been within two weeks of having her feet amputated and within two weeks of becoming cancerous. For two years her doctors had been telling her she was suffering from athlete's foot when she had actually been suffering from Graves' Disease, a life-threatening thyroid condition.

It was only Devers' persistence - she refused to accept her illness was not serious - that saved her life. "It was finally diagnosed in September 1990," she recounted. "The doctors told me I was two weeks away from being cancerous and that if I had walked on my feet for another two days they would have been amputated."

Devers, a preacher's daughter from Seattle, underwent radiation treatment. A cyst the size of a child's fist was removed from her thyroid. Yet in Tokyo, in September 1991, she won the world championship 100m hurdles silver medal behind the victorious Engquist.

In Seville on Saturday night Engquist won the 100m hurdles bronze medal behind Devers and Glory Alozie of Nigeria. Four months ago she was diagnosed as suffering from breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

"It's amazing what Ludmila has achieved here," Devers said, sitting alongside her old rival in the press conference room. "It's the comeback story of all comeback stories.

"Everyone in the stands tonight knew her story and you could just feel the positive energy of people behind her, rooting for her. Hey, I'm rooting for her and I'm running against her.

"You have to look at her as an example. In sport, or in anything in life, sometimes things may not be not going for you at all. The walls seem like they're falling in on you. But you can reach out to find inner strength yourself, which is what Ludmila has done.

"She was able to find strength, regardless of what other people believed she could or could not do. She believed in herself. She's living testimony that dreams can come true."

Engquist smiled in acknowledgement of such a glowing tribute. But the smile did not last long.

Her dream came true on Saturday night, when she recovered from a sluggish start to finish with a bronze medal, equalling her Swedish record, 12.47sec, in the process. Her nightmare, however, is far from over.

The removal of her right breast on 1 April has not removed every cancerous cell from her body. On Thursday she returns to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm for another course of chemotherapy.

Engquist, a 35-year-old Russian-born Swede with a 16-year-old daughter, took her lap of honour, at Devers' insistence, knowing there is a possibility that she might not be around to defend her Olympic title in Sydney 13 months from now.

"The future is not looking that good for me," she said. "I just live for the day now, and for the challenge. It is enough simply to be here and to be alive.

"Tonight I have won my medal and I'm happy now. I know I have done something special. I hope it will show people that cancer is not always the end.

"But the future...who knows? I hope I will be clear one day. And I hope next year I can do much better. We shall see."

We shall, indeed. But, as the 1999 World Championships fade into history, Ludmila Engquist's inspiration will live on.

She has shown that life's biggest hurdles can be challenged - as Gail Devers has shown before her.